Recognizing myself as a victim of a traumatic past is an important initial step in processing and understanding my mental health, but I have realized that staying in a mindset of victimhood will only hold me back as I try to move forward and grow into a new life. Over this past summer, I have been working with a therapist and a psychiatrist in putting my mental health into context and working to improve my overall well-being. This summer of counseling has exposed a lifetime of trauma that had gone entirely unrecognized and unprocessed. It’s amazing to think about the extent to which I was cut off from myself and my own emotions. Unfortunately, many who have experienced trauma learn to repress their feelings and their authenticity. It robs them of their voice and the empowerment that should naturally flow with being a human being. For me, I buried myself so far down into the earth that I am just now, at 34 years old, learning to reemerge and piece together the puzzle of my being.
For many, trauma hinders their ability to learn, to be vulnerable, and to form meaningful connections with others. For me, it feels like it did all of the above and then some. The truth is, I have felt alone and unworthy all of my life. Through all of the notable events of trauma, flowing like a turgid river of pain smothering everything in its wake, the feelings of utter isolation and disconnection have punctuated my existence. Legitimizing and validating my emotions and existence is a new concept for me. Going through my trauma this summer, I can’t help but feel like something precious was stolen from me. I remember fumbling through the possible answers in my head…was it my innocence, my potential, my sense of self-worth, my ability to learn, my curiosity and creativity, or my ability to bond closely and easily with others? It was all of these things and so much more.
Going through my life with a professional and unpacking everything gave me a hopeful jolt of revelation at first, but ultimately left me seeping in bitterness and anger. The anger of a newly realized victimhood is potent and fervent with the bright intensity of a freshly spurting wound. I felt the hot animosity fester inside me, molding into a beast of perpetual growth, turning into rage. I saw all of the people who had wronged me, belittled me, verbally abused me, and manipulated me, and I hated them for it. I wanted them to hurt. I wanted them to die. I wanted them to feel everything they had made me feel ten times over. I wanted to destroy them and relish in their anguish. I wanted to see them suffer for what they took from me.
I think it is perfectly natural to feel these things upon reflection of personal trauma. I think it is a necessary step in the healing process, but it is just that, only a step to be acknowledged and moved past. And as I have been working through this blazing anger, I realize that marinading in it, while easy and convenient, is a cyclical existence. It’s an existence that so many of us dealing with mental illness choose. Victimhood offers the traumatized a path of least resistance. It invites you in with promises of simple answers, then ensnares you in a rusty cage of resentment and helplessness. To only see myself as a victim and to putrefy in that state is to rob myself of my own autonomy. I eventually realized that I was persistently choosing to only see myself as a bitter victim, and therefore I was unconsciously taking any and all responsibility for my current life away from myself. I was willfully striping myself of power and autonomy in order to forgo doing the challenging work of building real, lasting change for the better.
Am I a victim? Yes. But I am also a survivor and a warrior and so much more. I contain multitudes that can never be simply summed up by the role of a victim. Shedding the victim mentality and taking up responsibility for my life going forward seems like the next step in my healing, although it is admittedly uncomfortable. It seems like feelings of powerfulness can be just as daunting as feelings of powerlessness. But for once, I feel like I am starting to realize that I am at the helm of my life going forward. Yes, giving historical context to my trauma and my mental health was profound and instrumental in my growth, but that doesn’t mean it has to solidify or sum up my existence. I am not the same person I was as a shamed child, a misunderstood teenager, and as a defeated and lost young adult. I have grown throughout the years in so many incredible ways that are worthy of my praise and admiration. It is time I started being a friend to myself, the friend that all of those younger versions of myself so desperately needed.
I am the captain of my own ship now. In truth, no one person and no one event created my mental health. While I can’t control the words and actions of others, and I can’t control how I was treated and made to feel at younger stages in my life, I do have a say in my internal state right here and right now. In moving past the role of a helpless victim, the one true, unapproachable concept for so many is realizing that it is ultimately our minds under our control moving forward. Our brains are not stagnant. Neuroplasticity is a thing and we can learn to change, rewire our brains, and form better mental habits. I can choose to let the past define me and stubbornly accept the old and limiting beliefs about myself. I can choose to let the negative, berating self-talk in my head continue and to passively believe it. OR I can challenge it. I can call out the negative self-talk and worst-case scenarios going on in my head for the lies they are. I can understand their origin and deceptive nature, and replace them with a more compassionate, holistic, and nuanced story about myself.
And with this newfound empowerment comes a determination and a hopefulness in knowing that I am not chained to my adversities, but that they were there to show me the strength and perseverance within myself this whole time. Now I have the power to see them as the stepping stones they were in helping me to intimately identify with struggle and suffering. And as suffering is a universal human experience, the scars of my pain and isolation have ironically served to bolster the potential for deeper connections I can now share with others going forward. My suffering has emboldened my life with new meaning and purpose, proving that there is dignity and redemption to be reached through the plight of our mental illnesses and that we are never truly alone.